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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The National Public Safety Partnership (PSP) enhances the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) support of state, tribal, and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors in the investigation, prosecution, and deterrence of violent crime. The DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) has received questions from the PSP sites about law enforcement’s response to domestic violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. OVW provides responses to the most common questions below to help provide insight and resources for law enforcement addressing domestic violence during the pandemic.
A: State and tribal laws regarding domestic violence are still in effect, and law enforcement officers must effectuate arrests if required by law. As a result of concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 in confinement facilities, some communities that have flexibility under applicable laws have adopted new standard operating procedures allowing officers to use alternatives to arrest for misdemeanor offenses in an effort to reduce the jail population. When exercising such an alternative, a law enforcement officer should take into account the victim safety implications of a decision not to arrest, using a risk or lethality assessment, looking at the suspect’s previous domestic violence offenses, and determining whether an order of protection is in place, among other strategies. The use of the Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) system to notify victims when offenders are released also can aid in promoting victim safety. In addition, on every domestic violence call, law enforcement should inform victims about available victim advocacy services.
A: Patrol officers risk exposure to COVID-19 when addressing calls for service, especially when entering a home to address a domestic violence call. To mitigate the risk of virus exposure on calls that require a patrol response, law enforcement and 9-1-1 operators are asking complainants to meet the officers outside with masks on.
In addition, the Battered Women’s Justice Project, which runs OVW’s National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, has learned from the field that following an increase in gun purchases during the COVID-19 national emergency, officers are concerned not only about a rise in domestic violence homicides but also about their own safety in responding to domestic violence calls. Risk to officers increases when the suspected abuser either possesses weapons by purchasing them or receives them from relatives as extra protection during the pandemic. Although increasing the number of responders at the scene could help address these concerns, law enforcement has an interest in reducing the number of people on scene to lessen the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
A: Jurisdictions experiencing a decline in the number of reports should not assume it is indicative of incidence or prevalence and instead should treat it as a cause for concern, especially as aggravating factors—such as unemployment, reduced income, limited resources, and limited social support—compound. Law enforcement departments may not be seeing an increase in reports of domestic violence because of victims’ fear of repercussion for reporting or lack of community trust and knowledge of available community support. Additionally, victims may not report because they fear that they or their partner will be exposed to COVID-19 through interacting with responding officers, from seeking shelter, or through their partner being jailed. Law enforcement can address underreporting by touching base with local victim service providers to see what trends they are experiencing with victim reporting.
A: Victims are at increased risk of abuse while living in close quarters with abusers during stay-at-home orders. Requests for services, particularly housing and emergency shelter, are increasing, and victim service providers are struggling to juggle the demand with the mitigation measures necessitated by the pandemic. To accommodate social distancing efforts, shelters have been forced to limit shelter occupancy and stretch their budgets to house survivors in hotels. Advocates often must provide services virtually, in some cases to victims trapped at home with abusers.
The International Association for Chiefs of Police has published guidance, such as “Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” detailing what law enforcement agencies should be aware of when reaching and supporting vulnerable victims of domestic violence. Given the increased risk that victims are facing during this time, it is critical for law enforcement to proactively educate domestic violence victims about available advocacy services. It is not enough to hand out information on the scene. For example, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia has used social media to inform victims about the local 24-hour domestic violence hotline and the help available for survivors of domestic violence and their children.
A: While forensic exams are still available, hospitals are not allowing advocates to accompany survivors through the process because of pandemic-related safety protocols. Domestic violence medical-forensic exams may be impacted by medical professionals’ overburdened schedules, by victims’ reluctance to visit medical facilities because they fear COVID-19 exposure, and by the lack of personal protective equipment for medical staff. Some forensic examination programs have relocated their services to non-hospital facilities while establishing protocols for victims with urgent medical issues that require hospitalization. Where in-person medical-forensic services are not an option, law enforcement and victim service providers should inform victims about opportunities for telehealth.
A: Local municipalities have found creative ways to continue the service of protection orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking into consideration officer safety. The state of Washington, for example, worked with the Center for Court Innovation, an OVW training and technical assistance provider, to develop statewide guidelines on electronic alternatives to in-person service of protection orders. These alternatives included the following:
Communities have also used electronic alternatives to conduct temporary, emergency ex parte and final protection order hearings. In DeKalb County, Georgia, emergency ex parte hearings are being conducted using an online video-conferencing platform. Miami-Dade County, Florida, is holding final protection order hearings on an online video-conferencing platform; Florida law allows for temporary ex parte protection orders to be granted without a hearing if a petitioner submits an application meeting the legal requirements.
For additional information for law enforcement on addressing domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit OVW’s TA2TA training and technical assistance website. The website also has a calendar with upcoming trainings, as well as contact information for the training and technical assistance providers discussed within this article.
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